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12 December 2018

What we learned from Theresa May’s speech to the 1922 Committee

The prime minister won’t fight the next election – or at least recognises that nobody wants her to.

By Patrick Maguire

Calm. Resilient. Businesslike. Theresa May’s pre-vote appearance at the 1922 Committee – potentially her last as Conservative leader – elicited all the cliched descriptions of her character that one would expect as MPs and Ministers lined up to give their blow-by-blow accounts of the prime minister’s date with destiny. There were tears too, allegedly. But what did we actually learn?

Theresa May won’t fight the next election – or at least recognises nobody wants her to

The big headline from May’s speech was, as expected, an assurance – of sorts – that she would not fight the next election. The key message, according to deputy Tory chairman James Cleverly, was that it would be “a very, very bad time to replace the prime minister”.

As she did in private meetings this afternoon, she told MPs that in “her heart of hearts” she wanted to fight on, but recognised that the party did not want her doing so. She declined to give a timescale, and nor, it seems, did she give a concrete, unambiguous assurance that she would stand down.

As such, exactly what the prime minister promised – or not – was subject to different interpretations from individual MPs and ministers. Some saw it as a sincere statement of intent, others as Cleverly said merely that she “recognised a lot of colleagues were uncomfortable about her leading us into the next election”, while Liz Truss was less ambiguous, characterising it as a more straightforward pledge not to do so. The rebels, on the other hand, were dismissive. “Intentions can change,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg.

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There won’t be a snap election – or at least one that May calls voluntarily

May opened her speech with a promise that she might yet struggle to keep: “We are not calling a snap election.” Before assuring colleagues that she knew they wanted her gone by then, she said she wanted to do “everything I can” to ensure this parliament ran its course to 2022, and did not end sooner.

She was more equivocal about other routes out of the parliamentary impasse, including a second referendum. According to one MP, she merely said that she did not want one to happen rather than categorically ruling it out.

The government wants to win back the DUP

“She made absolutely clear that the only way of getting a deal is with the Democratic Unionist Party,” one Cabinet minister said. Numerous others, including Liz Truss, confirmed that she intended to do so by securing a “legally binding” assurance that the backstop is temporary. As long as that assurance isn’t a change to the Withdrawal Agreement itself, it’s unclear whether she can make good on this promise, as I explain in more detail here. It could see her blunder into a snap election, even if she doesn’t intend to call one.

May hasn’t united her party

As will be obvious from the eventual result of the confidence vote, a sizeable chunk of the Conservatives’ parliamentary party has lost all faith in May and her platform. Compared to her previous appearances at the 22, the applause was audibly muted and there is no question of her winning the enthusiastic support of anyone, to say nothing of the non-existent possibility of her assuaging the concerns of her critics. “Stamina isn’t a policy, prime minister,” was the acerbic verdict of Lee Rowley, a member of the 2017 intake. “After the election, she took the room by storm,” said Rees-Mogg. “That was a very, very half-hearted room by comparison”. It showed.

Boris Johnson is staying out of the fray – for now

The former Foreign Secretary – who is as good as nailed on to enter the leadership race that will follow a May defeat – sat in studious silence on the back row, and did not speak. He took a similarly detached approach at Prime Minister’s Questions, when he sat outside the main arena. Johnson will be keenly aware of Michael Heseltine’s warning to would-be Tory regicides: “He who wields the knife never wears the crown.” The ringleaders of the rebellion and prominent Eurosceptics – Rees-Mogg, Dominic Raab, Bernard Jenkin and Owen Paterson, among others – were similarly silent.

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